I had to qualify for a top-secret security clearance to become a special agent with the FBI. The clearance process was meticulous, leaving little hope of any privacy concerns as they contacted employers, co-workers, family members, neighbors and friends to determine what I might have said or done that may pose a national security risk.
Agents who subsequently author a work-related book are required to get approval from the FBI to ensure no classified information is revealed. One retired agent, Joseph Schott, penned a book entitled “No Left Turns,” revealing embarrassing and somewhat incriminating information concerning former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Although highly inflammatory, nothing in the book revealed information that could be proven as endangering national security.
Former national security advisor John Bolton has written a similarly salacious book entitled “The Room Where It Happened,” which paints President Trump in a highly unflattering expose. Federal prosecutors are weighing whether to criminally charge Bolton with endangering national security. There’s little doubt the probe has been prompted by the president to be initiated by Attorney General Barr who many believe was hired to act as the President’s personal hatchet man.
Trump has asserted Bolton should face “criminal problems” for publishing allegedly classified information — since, Trump claimed, “any conversation with me is classified.” Though the president is in charge of deciding what is classified, experts in national security law have called Trump’s sweeping claim absurd noting he is expressing a bogus accusation for far more secrecy than previous presidents have sought while ignoring an executive order making clear that certain material should not be classified.
My professional understanding of what embodies revealing classified information refers primarily to endangering our national defense. For example, risking the exposure of American spies and other confidential sources was a definite no-no that could expose me to being fired and a lengthy prison term. Information was not considered classified simply because it might be embarrassing and certainly not if it covered up any illegal activity. Bolton’s book exposes both embarrassing/incompetent detail and illegal activity on the part of Trump. Neither of which exposes any legitimate national security breach.
Trump castigating Bolton is like the pot calling the kettle black. He’s been guilty of actual security breaches. Maybe the worst occurred in May 2027 when he met with Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Although roundly disputed, it’s highly likely he passed on to both highly classified intelligence information related to a militant group that had been passed on to the U.S. by a trusted ally. That resulted in recalling a critical informant from the field who faced certain death if exposed because of the breach.
Trump has also played fast and loose by overturning security clearance denials as determined by adverse background checks performed by professional government security experts. In 2018 he ordered his chief of staff to grant his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, a top-secret security clearance overruling concerns flagged by intelligence officials and the White House’s top lawyer. The denial had been based on Kushner’s questionable foreign business dealings exposing him to among other security concerns potential extortion attempts by foreign powers.
Tricia Newbold, an 18-year government employee responsible for the issuance of security clearances, has stated security clearances were initially denied for at least 25 senior White House aides due to negative background checks. Senior Trump officials subsequently overturned those denials. It’s likely such action was directed or at least approved by the president. The result being a threat to national security.
Most recently, Barr orchestrated a motion to dismiss charges against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn after he had already plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Russian Ambassador Kislyak during the presidential transition. What they actually talked about has been in dispute, but lying about the contact raises suspicion of potential adverse national security implications and certainly disqualified him for a security clearance.
Has Barr once again bowed to the desire of Trump by freeing Flynn and negating the need for a presidential pardon? Does Trump fear some compromising exposure by Flynn unless he gets him off the hook? Maybe.
Raymond A. Hult, Bountiful, is a retired FBI special agent.